Cruise ports expand around Caribbean

To view the full special report from the Cayman Compass on the cruise dock debate, visit the Compass Data Desk. 

George Town has the fifth busiest cruise port in the Caribbean by total passengers according to 2014 cruise arrival statistics, and the Cayman Islands is the fourth-most popular country. It is also the only country in the top five without a cruise ship berthing pier.

George Town attracted more than 1.6 million cruise passengers last year, up more than 15 percent from the year before. In 2014, 562 cruise ships anchored off Grand Cayman.

Of the top five ports of call in the region, Nassau, in the Bahamas consistently ranks the most popular. More than 3.5 million cruise passengers stopped at the Bahamian capital last year, which was down slightly from 2013. The Out Islands, a collection of smaller islands in the Bahamas, ranked third in the region.

The Bahamas, thanks to its close proximity to cruise lines’ home docks in Florida, is by far the biggest cruise destination, with almost 7.4 million passengers stopping at one of the country’s three main ports.

The next most visited country in the Caribbean is Mexico. Almost 3.7 million cruise passengers visited the country’s two main east coast cruise ports, with the majority visiting Cozumel. In 2014 about 3.4 million passengers stopped at the island off the Yucatan Peninsula.

Sint Maarten is the most popular country for cruise ships in the Eastern Caribbean, and third in the region. The port in Pointe Blanche last year had more than 2 million cruise passengers pass through, up by more than 10 percent from the year before.

The privately run port has two piers and can dock up to six cruise ships at once, including the new Oasis-class ships that can accommodate more than 6,000 passengers, including crew. Almost 700 cruise ships stopped in Sint Maarten last year.

New ports 

There are new cruise terminals under construction in the Dominican Republic, Barbados and Belize. Cruise companies themselves are leading the way in the development of the new ports.

Royal Caribbean is working with the Bajan government to build a new terminal with three piers, a market, shops, hotel and other amenities in Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados. The port is designed to handle four Oasis-class ships, the largest of Royal Caribbean’s fleet. The first phase of the project should be done next year.

Modern ports, with few exceptions, have berthing facilities for ships that are longer than 1,100 feet, allowing passengers to disembark directly onto a pier instead of being shuttled to shore on tenders.

Amber Cove, a new port in the Dominican Republic developed by Carnival, is slated to open in October 2015. The $90 million project will have two berths for the largest ships, according to Carnival.

In Belize, Norwegian Cruise Lines is building a new terminal on Harvest Caye, despite an ongoing legal battle between the Belize Tourism Industry Association and federal environmental regulators in that country over the project’s approval process. The development, expected to cost $50 million, connects two small islands with a floating pier, marina and other facilities for tourists. In all, it will encompass some 75 acres.

Internal competition 

Jamaica has been investing heavily in its cruise ports in recent years, and more expansions are on the horizon. The three main cruise ports, Falmouth, Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, have all received significant public investment in recent years, competing against one another for cruise traffic.

Combined, Jamaica’s ports attracted more than 1.4 million cruise passengers last year, making it the fifth most popular country in the region for cruise traffic.

Ocho Rios was the busiest cruise port in the country until 2011, when a new cruise port in Falmouth opened with two 1,180-foot berths along a triangular pier. The new pier is large enough for the massive new cruise ships to dock alongside so passengers can disembark.

The three main cruise destinations in Jamaica are all on the northern coast. Kingston, the country’s capital on the southern coast, is considering a new cruise pier to attract ships from South America, according to media reports. Kingston was a major destination for cruise lines in the 1950s and ‘60s, however the Kingston project is in the very early stages. Local media report that a development company is in discussions with the Jamaican Port Authority and has yet to figure out how much the project could cost and where that funding would come from.

Weathering the storms 

Big storms and hurricanes are a fact of life in the Caribbean, and a big part of what goes into designing any coastal infrastructure. Cruise piers in the region have a mixed record when it comes to weathering storms, but modern design standards can stand up to some of the strongest winds and waves.

Grand Turk in the Turks and Caicos Islands took a direct hit from Hurricane Ike, a Category 4 storm, in September 2008 and almost every building on the island was damaged, according to local and international media. But a cruise pier, completed just two years earlier, withstood the storm. Carnival, which operates the cruise center, was able to reopen the pier and tourist complex within a month.

The three piers in Mexico’s Cozumel were not so lucky a couple years earlier. The Puerta Maya pier, owned by Carnival, was completely destroyed when Category 5 Hurricane Wilma hit the island in October 2005.

According to weather reports from the time, Wilma sat directly on top of Cozumel and Cancun for two days, pummeling the coastline. Other piers sustained significant damage and halted Cozumel’s bustling cruise industry, the second busiest in the Caribbean.

To view the full special report from the Cayman Compass on the cruise dock debate, visit the Compass Data Desk. 

Cruise ship passenger arrivals are still increasing in the most popular Caribbean ports.
Cruise ship passenger arrivals are still increasing in the most popular Caribbean ports.

The cruise ship berthing dock in St. Maartin.

The cruise ship berthing dock in Sint Maarten. – Photo: Vicki Wheaton